Despite the international community's considerable efforts in Afghanistan since 2001 to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the insurgency in the south of the country has gathered momentum at breakneck speed in recent months. Our field research shows that we are not winning the campaign for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people -- the Taliban are. Indeed, the international community's methods of fighting the insurgency and eradicating poppy crops have actually helped the insurgents gain power.
The international community has so far pursued policies of destruction, rather than the promised reconstruction.
The aggressive US-led counter-narcotics policy of crop eradication has failed to win the support of Afghans because it has triggered a chain reaction of poverty and violence in which poor farmers, with their only livelihood destroyed, are unable to feed their families. This has been exacerbated by the failure to provide even the most basic aid and development to the country's poorest areas.
At the same time, communities have been torn apart as a result of bombing campaigns that have destroyed the very homes we came to protect. This, in addition to four years of drought, has forced entire families to leave their villages for makeshift refugee camps.
The Taliban have exploited the failures of the international community with extremely effective anti-Western propaganda that has fueled significant doubt in the minds of the public concerning the reasons behind the international presence in Afghanistan. Sadly, our troops are often the first to pay the price.
It is not too late to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. International troops are excelling in an exceptionally hostile environment, but this is not a war that will be won by military alone.
With public perception a crucial factor in winning the war and the Taliban poised to launch a large military initiative next spring, failure to adopt a successful local strategy could signify the last chance the international community will have to build a secure and stable Afghanistan.
But a successful strategy -- one that responds to Afghanistan's extreme poverty crisis -- requires that the international community reverse course on crop eradication. In fact, the eradication of poppy crops not only damages local communities and undermines the international community's goals, but is also failing: opium production last year was at an all-time high. In September, the UN Office on Drugs Crime announced that poppy cultivation soared by a record-high 60 percent.
Eradication will never be successful in Afghanistan because it destroys the single crop that will grow in the south's harsh climate and thus serves as the main source of income to millions of people. So a new, long-term, economically sustainable solution is urgently needed -- one that directly engages with the communities that are suffering most -- in order to achieve the support of the deeply impoverished rural population.
As a way to address this dilemma, the Senlis Council is proposing to run scientific pilot projects to research an opium licensing system for Afghanistan, which would be a core component of the economic reconstruction process. A system in which poppy is cultivated under license for the production of pain-killing medicines such as morphine and codeine would allow farmers to pursue their traditional livelihood and way of life and, more importantly, to feed themselves and their families.